Positive Psychology: Today there is a burgeoning field of research called positive psychology, defining an optimal life. The most popular course ever taught at Yale University was given by the psychologist, Dr. Laurie Santos, “Psychology and the Good Life.” Half the university signed up for this one course, which had to be given by video transmission into numerous overflow halls. Its online edition has had one hundred seventy thousand people from one hundred and seventy countries enrolled. It is interesting for a Vipassana meditator to notice how much of positive psychology was already available 2500 years ago in the teaching of the Buddha. Let’s look at a few features of the Buddha’s dispensation which have now been trumpeted as important discoveries of positive psychology, and which might help us as we meditate in troubled times.
Friendship: I think most meditators are familiar with the saying in the Pāli Canon, that friendship on the Path does not constitute half of the entire practice. According to the Buddha, friendship on the Path is the whole Path. Nothing is more important. Of course, this doesn’t mean that friendship substitutes for meditation. It means that friendship for someone who is walking the Path as fully as they can, with someone else who is already walking the Path as fully as they can, is a mutual catalyst that allows each one of them maximal progress. The Buddha’s Path emphasized community, as emblemized by the Bhikkhu Saṇgha. In other words, from the time of the Buddha, meditation has been understood to be a social membership as well as an individual activity. We should not be surprised to find that it is a truism in positive psychology that our social network is a powerful predictor of our resilience during traumatic or crisis ridden periods. Meditators have in fact responded to world events by activating meditation networks via group sittings, online group sittings, and other forms of outreach and supportive conviviality.
Loneliness: But wait! The Buddha praised loneliness. It seems confusing and self-contradictory to read the advice of our legendary, ancient teacher to find him praising both friendship and loneliness. Linguistic and cultural scholars who study the Pāli Canon find that its language forms and references reveal that it was composed over hundreds of years and that some of its texts are earlier than others. One of the early texts in the Canon is translated into English as the Rhinoceros Sutta. (Sn 1.3) In this teaching, the Buddha advised that, “…seeing the drawbacks of social allurement, the wise person, valuing freedom, wanders alone like a rhinoceros.” If we read this one text only, we would not imagine what the rest of the Pāli Canon shows to be true, which is Bhikkhus wandering in groups.
In the Rhinoceros Sutta, as was so often true, the Buddha created a a choice point with two options. The life of a meditator can embrace both friendship and solitude, each one valuable at different times and in different ways.
Friendship on the Path is a critical support, but it can also seduce us into following someone else’s ideas rather than our personal meditation experiences. In Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize speech, 2016, he said that playing for an audience of 50 people is more difficult than playing for an audience of 50,000, because the 50 people remain individuals, but the 50,000 become one, fused mass. To avoid the danger of creating passive followers, the Buddha also provided for rugged individualists.
The life of a meditator, by definition, has loneliness at its core. When you meditate, it’s you alone. The deep self knowledge, the many viewpoints from which we see our personal history and our personality traits while we meditate, is unique. Part of the power of meditation is its journey into the complexity of what we call our self. Through this journey of loneliness and its attendant self knowledge, we also gain the capacity for friendships that are equally reflective and rich.
That is why is has been designed in our meditation tradition that we always meditate alone, in our own residential quarters, and as part of a body of beings, during a group sitting. Meditation spans both forks in the road that the Buddha set for us: to be deep friends and comfortable loners. The Buddha can be said to have been teaching the saying spuriously attributed to Yogi Berra: “When you see a fork in the road, take it.”
Walking Outdoors: Another feature of positive psychology that was prefigured in the Pāli Canon was the importance of walking outdoors. The original teaching associated with the Buddha’s name repeatedly described the Dhamma being practiced by people who were living in rural and semi- rural environments. Probably, the main reason that the Bhikkhu Saṇgha consisted of people who begged for their food was to create an atmosphere of serious Dhamma practitioners who were not attached to possessions, but it is certainly not a coincidence that the lives of the Bhikkhus in the legends of the Pāli Canon were also spent in days of walking through the fields, forests, and small settlements of early Indian civilization, a green and growing pre-industrial world with recurrent encounters with elephants, rhinoceroses, cobras, and the whole panoply of tropical zoological and botanical life. Walking daily meant that the early meditation practitioners were always in touch with nature. It is because I follow their advice that I can tell you that the Canada geese and the marsh hawks have returned to the fields of Massachusetts, and that the mergansers and mallards are once again floating in the flooded riverbanks among the silver maples.
As Walt Whitman put it:
“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune…
Done with indoor complaints…
Strong and content I travel the open road.”
Altruism and Mettā: When it comes to living well and surviving difficult times, a trait that we can count on to give us resilience is altruism. Positive psychology teaches us that altruistic people feel happier, and overcome difficulties better than self absorbed people. How nice it is to see the Buddha’s attitudes of Karuna, compassion, and of Mettā, loving kindness, affirmed by twenty-first century psychologists. The Dhamma prepares us to be altruistic servers, givers, friends, and survivors. During eras of relative confinement and isolation, like lockdowns, we still need to keep our altruism glowing. Goenkaji’s guidance on this point was embedded in the aphorism that someone who sits, but who does not serve, does not understand Dhamma. So even while we are sitting alone, in our houses, dens, and cubby holes, we still need to fulfill our meditation practice with service.
Recently, a few old students have expressed some dissatisfaction with the fact that Goenkaji’s dispensation is too oriented towards service. When Goenkaji was first meeting Westerners in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, his Buddhist emphasis upon selfless service easily dovetailed with the Western radicals who became his students, and who wanted to change the world. But today, half a century later, there is a small group of students who seem to wish that meditation will turn them into self-contained and self-satisfied people. These students wonder why they cannot take a direct path instead having to spend so much time on Dhamma service. The link between psychological development and altruism was not created by Goenkaji or even by the Buddha. It is a psychological truism that is built into human nature because we are family and community based mammals. Our emotional life cannot hit the high notes without our effort to elevate others as we raise ourselves up. Maybe our service in times of overwhelming difficulties can only be limited to the Mettā we share after we sit. Our Mettā could also inspire us to whatever acts of effective intervention our situation permits. But maybe we can use internet communication, to extend a ray of well being and affection to someone who will be uplifted by receiving it. While effective social and political actions are very important, as meditators we should preserve our tradition’s emphasis that what happens in our hearts, even if it doesn’t translate into immediate action, will eventually become manifest. We should preserve our confidence that personal purification has long term results in social utility.
Wealth is excess, what you can afford to give away and still have enough. It is this kind of generosity, and not some self proclamation of “attainment”, that is the goal and measure of our Path. Our Path distributes its wealth through the practice of Mettā, a feeling state actively cultivated after Vipassana practice, that pervasively seeps in and out of our lives with increasing frequency as we progress on the Path. This spontaneous suffusion of Mettā, and the right action that it generates in the long term is the best thing we get and the best thing we give from our Dhamma life.
Living and acting in keeping with the fruit of our meditation all day, every day is the active, eyes-open lifestyle informed by meditation, that becomes a life of Dhamma. In times like this, when so many people around us are in such acute distress, and often quite understandably so, this is a good time for emotional charity.
Our Mettā is undoubtedly partly selfish, and should serve the purpose of making us feel better, kinder, more generous, filled with concern for the world of victims of the virus, war, and social injustice. Our Mettā should compel us to ask how we can give a part of our own equanimity to someone else. Realistically, few Vipassana meditators are positioned to powerfully alter wars, pandemics, or social systems, and our direct interpersonal relationships are the most fertile vehicles in which we can activate the psychological wealth we reap from our meditation. Martin Buber said that courage spreads to the mass of people from those few who have stood upon the threshold and seen reality face to face.
A beautiful metaphor for Mettā exists in a poem by Robert Frost who reminded us that small threads of attachment remain in the most wonderful people. In a poem called “The Silken Tent” about a person he revered, she is described as being like a tent on a sunny, summer day when a breeze has dried the dew, and when all the ropes that hold the tent aloft, relax, and relent, so that she is held aloft not by any one tight cord. Instead, she is loosely bound, “By countless silken ties of love and thought To everything on Earth the compass round.”
Beyond Views: Probably the most important lesson I have learned from contemporary psychological is contained in the book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman, the Princeton professor who is the only psychologist to get a Nobel Prize. (The award was for economics, where Kahneman’s insights were recognized early). Kahneman said that the single most important discovery of modern psychology is that human beings are “overconfident". We manufacture answers to make us feel secure. We deny uncertainty and ambiguity in order to feel we are safe in our pre-existing beliefs. We tamper with the evidence to affirm what we think we know, and to reject anything that we find to be new or foreign.
Human beings tend to be overconfident that we are right, correct, and that we know it all. Kahneman’s great contribution was to point to overconfidence, as the center of the circle of ignorance, error, and violence. Kahneman was probably prepared to find this because he himself, as a European Jew born just before the Second World War, ended up spending years of his childhood in a chicken coop hiding from a widespread overly confident Nazi belief.
The overconfidence that so many people need in order to feel secure is expanded when it is amplified by a leader. The grandiosity of groups, the fantasy of eternal self-importance of a religion or nation, exhilarates its followers, who find that their small and insignificant lives feel eternally important when a convincing leader reassures them that it is so. It is through the exponential inflation of self-importance that happens in human tribes that personal overconfidence becomes transformed into grandiose schemes of dominance and conquest.
As meditators we can feel good about the fact that overconfidence, over-belief, was pinpointed as a cardinal error by the Buddha. He described the Dhamma as going beyond all views, surrendering attachment to beliefs, and following the Path of wisdom based upon experience achieved through meditation.
These attitudes of realism and open-mindedness help us avoid both pessimistic conclusions but also misleading optimist delusions when we look out into a world troubled by pandemics, wars, nationalism, racism and climate change. Instead of believing in either the good or the bad, we focus upon what we really know, and don’t pretend to a knowledge that we in fact do not have. It is the attitude of personal experience, and willingness for self-rectification, that makes us people who go beyond views.
As we make our journey through the tempest of troubled times, our meditation should bless us with the ability to reject other people’s predictions, criticisms, or advice, and should ground us in a modest vision that is realistic about ourselves, and independent from group pressures within our social circle.
Place to One Side: Because as meditators we live partly within the context of a tradition of like minded people, it is also incumbent upon us to cast off our own overconfidence that would make us stubborn, argumentative, or overly self-possessed. Meditation on the always changing universe inside of us helps us to live wisely in a world that is fluid, multifaceted, rich with ambiguities, complexities and different shades and tintings. One way to measure our development in Dhamma is to see how easily we can place to one side our tendencies towards self assertive declarative truculence, and our self assured belief systems.
Nibbāna: Having some relationship to the goal of Nibbāna is essential to a student of Vipassana. We should understand clearly that the tradition handed down to us is not simply about being here now, or practicing mindfulness as if it were a total discipline. We are in a tradition that reaches back to the Buddha, the goal of which is Nibbāna. But Nibbāna is very transcendent, difficult to understand, non-conceptual, based upon a sequence of experiences that few will fully attain. So as a simplifying but valuable focal point, we can say that the Path of Dhamma that we walk upon while practicing Vipassana is aimed at what is positive, and is walking away from what is negative. We can understand that Sila, our moral practices actually share in the essence of Nibbāna. Although that vague generalization is not an exact guidance towards Nibbāna, and is much less valuable than our actual meditation practice, it nevertheless contains this very important message:
Negative attitudes towards ourselves, feelings of guilt and inadequacy, self-recrimination about how bad our meditation is, is negative, and is not on the Path. As soon as you criticize yourself, you have fallen off your donkey. One of the tricks to being a lifelong meditator, walking slowly towards the great star of Nibbāna is to avoid putting yourself down, comparing yourself unfavorably to others.
Let’s measure ourselves by where we are coming from as well as where we are going to. As soon as you start walking on the Path, you are both manifesting and exercising attributes that may well grow. John Prine, who died from coronavirus, wrote a song that said, “In spite of ourselves, we’ll end up a-sittin’ on a rainbow.”
Genuine Emotions: If you feel fear, dread, or helplessness, during these troubled times, you don’t have to hide these genuine emotions. You are actually being honest with yourself. In spite of your ongoing negativities, your months or years of effort in meditation are not invalidated. Your manifestations of suffering during this very stressful time are reminders of why you should continue to meditate rather than quit.
Begin Again: After Goenkaji died in 2013, we all have been musing about how much we got from him or from his teaching, even if we never met him personally. He placed us in a much bigger perspective than our own one life. He was the funnel through which Vipassana poured into us. He gave us many gifts from his vast Dhamma wealth. But the most important thing for me personally was two words: “begin again.” When we meditate in troubled times it often feels as if we are being knocked down, set back, feeling like we felt years ago before we became meditators. “Begin again,” does not refer only to the ten day course. It refers to every situation, every day. Now is the time for us to begin again. When people lose this beneficent enduring practice of Vipassana it is because they have forgotten two words, “begin again.”
Meditation is rooted in reality and experience, but it does have an element of faith. By faith, I mean something entirely different than being gullible or naive and acquiescing to the veracity of fantasy or inaccuracy. The faith in Vipassana is the faith to begin again. Meditation is an act of faith in the value of life every day. The world is not supporting our wishful fantasies. It is accosting us and standing in front of us with a grimace. In order to have the faith to being again we need to understand: “This is my life. These are my times. I was born now. These are the challenges that will shape the way I learn to respond. My Vipassana practice is compelled to be good enough to work exactly with the challenges of these troubled times.”
Everything fades away, but we don’t want to die by falling into a void meaninglessly. Vipassana forges a life in which every moment you are climbing up a rock face like Alex Honnold free soloing up the El Capitan in Yosemite. You have learned to climb upward against the forces of doubt, fear, self-criticism, loneliness, and groupism. You are too high up to waste your past efforts by letting go now. Find the next toe hold, and begin again.
It’s true that darkness often surrounds us, and that’s why we have to actively seek the light. It’s true that we may get confused at times, and that’s why we have to walk a Path that sets our direction. It’s true that every human being feels lonely and that’s why the Dhamma is also a Path of friendship. It’s true that our own moods rise up and we can find ourselves angry, or withering in doubt, and that’s why we seek the Path of purification, positivity, goodness of heart.
Meditation is the tool that can place our hand underneath the light, the Path, the friend, and the heart.